307. "ACLU Favors Porn Over Parents," The Wall Street Journal, (Ocotber 14, 1998), p. A22.
The good people of Loudon County, Virginia thought that they had found an effective way of protecting their young children from being exposed to hard core pornography when they surf the Internet at the county's library. The library installed X-Stop, which is one of a whole new category of software programs that block access either to a given list of websites or messages that contain certain key words (e.g. bestiality). Other brand names include Cyber Patrol and Net Nanny. The blocks work quite well although occasionally something slips through. (If a child misspells Motorola or Amazon he or she may face some rather offensive material, pushed by merchants of porn). But the Board of Trustees of the Loudon County Library did not take into account the ACLU who, on behalf of eight plaintiffs who manage websites blocked by X-Stop, are suing the library to reverse this policy. The case will be tried beginning on October 14. The ACLU already celebrated its victory in Kern County, CA, where the library agreed to give customers a choice between filtered and unfiltered computers, and--to allow minors to use which ever they prefer. The ACLU gloats that "No parental consent will be required for minors to access unfiltered computers."
The children involved are often quite young. One of the ACLU's plaintiffs, who is running a website on safer sex, reports that he responds to queries from children who are 13 years old and younger. Indeed, libraries complain that parents increasingly use libraries as childcare centers, leaving their kids behind while the parents are out shopping.
The ACLU argues that the free flow of ideas will be hindered by Internet filters, without explicitly maintaining that children have First Amendment rights. Thus, ACLU National Staff Attorney Ann Beeson writes, "We applaud the Board of Supervisor's decision to honor the First Amendment rights of Kern County citizens by . . . allow[ing] all adult and minor patrons to decide for themselves whether to access the Internet with or without a filter." The ACLU accuses the Loudon County Library Board of "removing books from the shelves of the Internet with value to both adults and minors in violation of the Constitution." And, on occasion its representatives even reveal their hostilities to filters used by parents in their homes. Marjorie Heins, a lawyer representing the ACLU, opines that parents too should not allow Internet nannies into their home, adding that "Rather than increasing opportunities for kids to learn and talk about sex, America seems poised to close them up."
The American Library Association (ALA) is also opposed to Internet filters, stating with reference to the Internet that "the rights to minors shall in no way be abridged." This position, in turn, is based on something called the Library Bill of Rights which commands that "A person's right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views." (When I was young libraries used to keep x-rated books under lock and key, and today's video stores have a segregated section for "adult" material).
In effect, the ALA goes much further. Its confidentiality rules prohibit disclosing any information about what patrons read to anybody, including reporters, the police, jealous spouses, and--parents. And it is backed up in doing so by several state laws, for instance in Wisconsin and Illinois. This leads to some bizarre situations, Ron McCabe, Director of the McMillan Memorial Library, explained. Parents sign their child's application for a library card, promising to make the library whole if books are lost. The parents get a notice that a book is overdue. However, when they ask which book is missing, they are told, at least by those libraries who adhere strictly to the said policies, that this cannot be disclosed--unless the parents bring a consenting note from the child!
The ACLU is also fighting for what it sees as First Amendment rights of children on other fronts. It opposes suggestions to limit tobacco advertising aimed at children, the so-called Joe Camel ads, even when the industry volunteered to do so while it was negotiating a deal with Congress. And, when major corporations, including Disney and Kellogg, offered not to collect information about children age 12 or younger who visit their websites without permission of their parents, they ran into fierce ACLU opposition.
The notion that children should be treated as basically small adults is difficult to comprehend. The great classical liberal philosophers, who laid the foundations for our conception of individual rights, directly addressed this matter. John Stuart Mill, for instance, stated: "Children below a certain age cannot judge or act for themselves; up to a considerably greater age they are inevitably more or less disqualified for doing so."
Our respect for people's choices rests on the assumption that their basic ability to render judgements has been formed and is intact. (This is the reason we, for instance, limit the choices of those whose mental capacity is significantly impaired). Minors gradually develop the capacity to make choices, but are not born with it. For this reason when their age is tender, we are not charged with violating their right to free assembly when we prevent them from running into the street, or their privacy rights when we examine their homework, even without prior consent.
As I see it parents not only have a right but a duty to help shape the educational environment of their children, help them choose what they should read, music to listen to, TV programs to watch, and--which to avoid. Of course, as children grow older such guidance is less necessary, but the debate swirls largely around those who are 12 or younger, who badly need their parents' counsel. This may include limiting the kind of porn they are exposed to, violent games they are not to play, or even how many hours a day they may surf on the Internet in the first place.
Even for teenagers, parents need to be involved rather than shut out. Thus, given the high suicide rate among teens, and the tendency for these to be emulated, if a kid committed suicide in my son's school, and my son seems rather depressed and he is spending long hours alone in the library, it is my minimal duty to know if he merely reads Dostoevsky or the books of The Hemlock Society, which informs its readers how to best end their lives, with minimal discomfort. I also had better find out if one of my children is deep into Mein Kampf, the Unabomber Manifesto, or The Anarchist's Cookbook, so I can help him learn to properly deal with these poisonous books.
In effect, attending to the character development of children, so when they grow they will be equipped with the moral and intellectual faculties needed to make responsible choices, is to a large extent what parenting is all about. Anybody can provide room and board. Love comes naturally. But providing education--laying the foundations for adult choices--is the highest duty of parenting, no civil libertarians should deny.
Amitai Etzioni teaches at George Washington University and his next book Limits of Privacy will be published in the spring by Basic Books.